Tech’s big small problem – for all of us

What's the line between being able to work anywhere, and having to work all the time? Do we need to fight for the right to disconnect or should your devices help us?

A tweet by a friend and digitally-savvy journalist has been haunting me for two days now. Here it is:

It reminded me of Anab Jain’s talk from NEXT15; of her call to think about consequences and responsibility. Where are we going with our tech?

Christian’s tweet is the dark side of the digital nomad. That idea – of working wherever you like in the world, based on the fact that the internet renders proximity unnecessary for much work – is a positive one. It’s people taking control of their own lives, and the way that they live, based on new opportunities that technology brings us.

The need for digital self-discipline

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The dark side of that is what you might call nomadic work – work that becomes part of everything you do. As you sit in the playground at the weekend, watching your children play, you find yourself staring at your phone, dealing with a work query. Instead of watching a movie with your partner to relax in the evening, half – or more – of your attention is sucked into your laptop, working on something that could quite properly have waited until the morning. WiFi becomes a need in your holiday villa, so you can stay in touch with work.

Now, some of these are clearly bad things. Withdrawing further from your loved ones because of pervasive tech is diminishing your life, not enriching it. And it’s all too easy for things to bleed further into our lives. How do we contain it?

Is this just a self-management problem? Do we just need the discipline to say no? Well, perhaps. But the problem with that approach is that a culture of being always available easily builds up. People always can reach us, so they think it’s their right to reach us. But even from a management point of view, that’s dumb. You might feel like you’re getting more value from what you’re paying your staff for – but you’re actually diminishing their productivity. People need time to relax, and disconnect, and let their brain and body recover themselves. But history teaches us that science of that sort just doesn’t get the play it should in aggressive, competitive cultures.

When your phone logs your out of work and into play

So how about technological solutions? We’ve already seen technology companies taking the first, tentative steps towards managing their digital impact on our lives. Could they push this further?

Could we have devices that we can switch from “work” to “home” mode. Could I flick a toggle on the control sheet of my phone, that tells people that I’m off duty? Notifications from – and access to – work accounts are hidden away, and people not in a friends and family group are routed through to voicemail?

This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, most device makers want us to use our devices more, not less. But isn’t it better that we rely on our devices rather than be addicted to them? The latter is far healthier than the former – and more likely to engender positive loyalty.

The answer, of course, is probably bit of both. A little more thought from the creators of tech into how we can manage our use of them more easily would be a huge help, but we still have personal and cultural battles to fight, too. the cultural consequences of tech are not inevitable. They are chosen, collectively, by us as a society. And we could do with talking a little less about tech and gadgets and a little more about the consequences of tech and gadgets.

If you’re got something interesting to share about the impact of tech on our lives, than please pitch it to us. We’re looking for contributions for NEXT16 right now. We’ll get back to you as soon as we can – within regular working hours of course.